Oh, January…college-bound seniors have now submitted their last applications and returned to high school for a final, emotional semester. While they turn their attention to a well-deserved victory lap, their parents turn their focus to financial aid. According to Jodi Okun, founder of College Financial Aid Advisors, the timeline for considering financial aid accelerates on January 1, with the annual release of the FAFSA application, but parents of all high school students should become knowledgable about financing college well before these last few months of a child’s senior year.
We were fortunate to interview Okun, whose expertise in the area makes her a trusted advisor. She offers the following advice, including how to avoid three common financial aid mistakes.
Financial Aid Q&A with Jodi Okun:
G&F 1. What timeline do you recommend for parents regarding financial aid?
Okun: In your student’s junior year, begin analyzing your assets, income, and where your student wants to attend college. Start looking at the cost of the college when you’re thinking about fit. Fill out your financial aid forms early!! The CSS Profile goes live October 1 (of your student’s senior year) and the FAFSA goes live January 1 (of your student’s senior year). Visit the college’s financial aid website for a detailed list of due dates to add to your calendar.
G&F 2. What are the most reliable sources of information where I can learn about financial aid for my high school child?
Okun: My number one resource is studentaid.gov. This website contains an abundance of information, frequently asked questions and answers – all about financial aid. In addition, follow Federal Student Aid on Twitter – @FAFSA – and check out their YouTube channel and Facebook page. Parents and students have the option to choose a platform they are most comfortable with as their go-to resource.
G&F 3. We have heard so much about kids graduating from college with huge debts. How can our family avoid that?
Okun: It all starts with the money talk which begins in middle school. Talking to students about the cost of college and using tools like the Net Price Calculator helps determine a ballpark of what parents will pay depending on the college sticker price and the family’s income and assets. After the hard number, the talk moves into deciding Return on Investment. For example, what are you going to major in? Is grad school in the future? How much have parents saved for their child’s education? What is the difference or gap amount that families will have to pay for an undergraduate degree?
Remember the cost of college needs to be multiplied by four. The conversation continues when talking about student loans. The average student graduates with $28,000 in debt. My advice is to not take out more in loans than you expect to make your first year working. That means, if you expect to make $40,000 starting salary, don’t exceed borrowing $40,000 in loans.
G&F 4. Should my high school kid only look at state schools inside our state since they are less expensive than private schools?
Okun: Never rule out a college because of cost. Some private colleges may have other institutional grants or scholarships to offer students who are eligible to bring the cost of a private college down to almost equal a public university or state school.
G&F 5. Do I have to provide as much information for a college financial aid package as I do for a mortgage, such as tax returns, pay stubs, lists of accounts and loans?
Okun: When applying for financial aid, please look at each college website’s financial aid page for a list of documents and applications required to complete the process. Some examples may include: FAFSA, CSS Profile, W2s, Federal Tax Return, and institution based application.
G&F 6. My junior wants to apply early decision to his dream school. Are we bound by that school’s financial aid package if he gets in? What if we cannot afford that school?
Okun: Early decision is binding. Use the Net Price Calculator to predict if you can afford the school if accepted. I encourage families to determine beforehand, using the published school rates, whether or not they can afford the school based upon their income, assets, etc.
G&F 7. What are the biggest mistakes that parents make regarding financial aid for their high school student?
Okun: Three items I encourage all college-bound parents to do:
1. Pay attention to deadlines
2. Complete the verification process in a timely manner
3. Continue communications with both your student and the college’s financial aid office
Related: Our favorite posts for college-bound students can be found here.
Jodi Okun is the founder of College Financial Aid Advisors (CFFA) and was a financial aid consultant at Occidental and Pitzer Colleges, with expertise in financial aid, scholarships, and college aid planning. She has successfully helped thousands of families navigate the financial aid process and has become a top influencer in the financial aid industry. Her first book will be released in May, 2016.
Every Thursday at 5pm PST, Jodi hosts #CollegeCash: a Twitter chat devoted to connecting college-bound families with higher education professionals. On average, #CollegeCash receives more than ten million impressions per week, making it a top resource for parents and students.
In addition to her blog for CFAA, Jodi writes for The Huffington Post and is the Paying for College Expert on About.com. She is also a social media strategist, speaker, consultant and small business advocate.
Jodi is the brand ambassador for Discover Student Loans. Together, they believe in the value of a college education and empowering families with the financial resources they need.
As an entrepreneur, Jodi has expanded the CFAA brand to introduce the Training Institute. This is an 8-week, online certification program designed to help other entrepreneurs open a new small business or add to their existing business.